AMERICAN DREAM COMES TO SOCCER

THE BALTIMORE SUN

This is what the American Dream looks like when you take soccer and fuse it with the promise and the possibilities of globalization:

Oguchi Onyewu.

Of course, Onyewu, 27, whose parents emigrated from Nigeria before he was born and raised him in Silver Spring and Olney, doesn't really look at it that way. He's just a hardworking, physically gifted, hyper-competitive center-back trying to fit in with a new team, AC Milan, which just happens to be one of the best soccer clubs in the world. He's hoping he'll make his team debut Friday when Milan plays Chelsea at M&T; Bank Stadium as part of the World Football Challenge, but Onyewu says that's a decision in the hands of the coaching staff.

But whether he plays - at least right now - isn't as important as what Onyewu represents. The fact that Milan wanted him after his strong play in the Confederations Cup in South Africa is proof that American soccer might finally be catching up with the rest of the world. He's the first American player to sign with a club in Italy's Serie A league since Alexi Lalas in 1996. The country still has a long way to go, but with such a diverse talent pool to draw from, the Yanks are beginning to close the gap as more athletes like Onyewu choose the "beautiful game." Onyewu possesses such a rare blend of size, speed and fearlessness that it was impossible for some of soccer's best clubs to ignore him any longer.

"I'm very excited, obviously," Onyewu said of his recent transfer to Milan from the Belgian club Standard Liege. "I really don't know how to put it into words. Milan has such a great history and has had so many great players on its team. To be an American growing up in the soccer system like I did, and now being able to be part of one of the elite clubs in the world, is the epitome of everything you dream about."

To say that people saw this as a possibility for Onyewu, whose friends call him "Gooch," back when he was playing for Sherwood High might be a bit of a stretch. Even Onyewu concedes he bore little resemblance, back then, to the physically chiseled athlete he is today. At 6 feet 4 and 210 pounds, he has become one of the most intimidating defenders in the world. He looks as if he could slip on shoulder pads and play outside linebacker for the Ravens without missing a beat.

"It's funny because I was tall and skinny growing up," Onyewu said. "I was very lanky and awkward-looking. My older brother is really well built, and I remember thinking: 'I want to look like that. I need to beef up.' That's really what triggered it. Everyone thinks it's natural, but it's not. I definitely didn't have football coaches approaching me asking if I wanted to play for them."

What Onyewu always has possessed is raw speed. His high school coach at Sherwood in Olney, Gene Orndorff, noticed it right away and decided to throw him into action on the varsity team at the beginning of Onyewu's sophomore year.

"He was a little skinny, scrawny kid," Orndorff recalled. "I put him in the center of the midfield, and our season turned around."

As a junior, Onyewu made the under-17 national team's 2010 program and was only a part-time player at Sherwood. But he would occasionally show up for games, including one against rival Wootton for a playoff game.

"He was a man among boys," recalled Doug Schuessler, then a first-year coach at the Rockville school and now director of Montgomery Soccer Inc., the state's largest sports league.

Greg Simmons, who played with Onyewu's older brother in high school and later played professionally in the U.S., said Onyewu always had a lot of talent and was extremely aggressive to the ball.

"But to be honest? To be playing with AC Milan someday? No way," Simmons said.

Some of that perception changed when Onyewu went to Clemson University, where he hit the weight room and began to dominate and intimidate other players.

"As big as he was, he was the fastest guy on our team," said Mike Potempa, a Loyola High graduate who played with Onyewu at Clemson and is now an assistant coach with the Tigers. "If he was two or three inches shorter, I don't know if we're having this conversation. That's not a knock on him. But if you've got a guy his size with the ability to keep up with other players, that's a pretty nice thing to have. He's also very calm on the field. He doesn't panic. He's very cool when he's on the ball, and no real situation gets him worked up."

Onyewu stayed at Clemson for two seasons, but at a certain point, it was obvious he needed to test his skills at the next level. In 2002, he signed a contract with the French club FC Metz, which was the beginning of a character-building transitional period in his life.

"I think once you take yourself out of your comfort zone, that's when you really begin to understand who you are as a person," Onyewu said. "It was difficult in the beginning, being away from everyone I knew. But I just tried to make friends, immerse myself in the culture and learn the language as quickly as possible. It was scary, but it was also exciting."

Onyewu played for several clubs in Belgium and had a lot off success with Standard Liege, getting named the Foreign Player of the Year in 2005. But his career seemed to stall after he didn't play particularly well when he was lent to Newcastle United in 2007 for the rest of their season. Newcastle decided not to keep him and sent him back to Standard.

"I think that every career has its ups and downs," Onyewu said. "Obviously when I went to Newcastle, I probably thought it would be permanent. And then a lot of people, a lot of critics and soccer insiders, looked at it like I wasn't good enough to play at that level. But I think a lot of expectations were blown out of proportion. You use that kind of thing to become a better player. If it wasn't for the Newcastle experience, I don't know that I would be where I am right now."

Patience and perspective have always been two of Onyewu's best attributes. It's no secret that racism is still a major problem for soccer players in some parts of Europe, with black players regularly getting harassed and even physically assaulted by crowds as well as opposing players during matches. Onyewu decided to confront the issue head on after an incident in the Belgian First Division Championship, when he says Anderlecht defender Jelle Van Damme called him, among other things, a "dirty ape" during the match. Van Damme denied the charge. In June, Onyewu announced that he was suing Van Damme in an effort to stand up to racism in soccer.

"I definitely think racism in sport and in society is not acceptable," Onyewu said. "I don't think that anyone who falls victim to it should just brush it off. We have to inform people that this should not be happening if we're going to erase it. Obviously, everyone heard about the incident that occurred, and I wasn't going to let it slide. I've definitely heard a lot of good comments from players in the States as well as my teammates and other players in Belgium. The overall reaction has been very positive."

It's a compelling narrative when you take a step back to think about his journey. A man with Nigerian parents grows up in the United States, where he excels in a sport embraced by the rest of the world to the point where he gets to fulfill his dream of playing for one of the top clubs in Europe. Along the way, he stands up to bigotry while carrying the hopes of American soccer on his broad shoulders. And now he gets to come full circle and play in front of 70,000 people not far from where he grew up.

"I think whenever you see a stadium filled with fans, you see how much passion one soccer game can bring out in them," Onyewu said. "And that's really positive. People say that soccer is the only sport in the world that can unite people. I really, truly believe that."

Baltimore Sun reporter Don Markus contributed to this article.

CHELSEA VS. AC MILAN

Friday, 8 p.m.

M&T; Bank Stadium

TV: ESPN

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